The Pope's Astronomer

Thursday May 4, 2006

Astronomy

Last night, I spent the evening in the company of the Pope’s astronomer, and a very fine evening it was too. Brother Guy Consolmagno was giving a talk at thinktank, Birmingham’s science museum (and my one-time workplace). Tickets were free, and it’s not every day that you get the chance to see the Pope’s astronomer, so I went along.

I have to say that I was not at all sure what to expect, but Consolmagno was a fascinating and hugely entertaining speaker. A highly respected astronomer who has taught at Harvard and MIT, Consolmagno became a Jesuit at the age of 37 and he now spends much of his time at the beautiful observatory at Castel Gandolfo. The talk explored both the history of the relationship between the Catholic church and developments in the astronomical sciences.

What impressed me the most about Br. Consolmagno – other than his passion and his humour (a typical quip was “When I was ordained, I took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Poverty and chastity were no problem – I’d been a student at MIT – but obedience… obedience was something else”) – was the way that he did not seek a justification for his faith in his work as an astronomer. At no point in his talk did he make the claim that the sheer vastness of the universe, its richness and its beauty, in any sense proved the existence of God. Instead, it seemed that he was only going so far as to say that these things confirmed his belief in the existence of God. And this is not the same thing at all.

To make the distinction clear, it might be helpful to call upon the services of Saint Anselm. It is popularly said that Anselm “proved” the existence of God through his ontological argument, an argument that goes something like this:

  1. God is that being than whom none greater can be conceived.
  2. If that than which nothing greater can be conceived existed only in the intellect, it would not be the absolutely greatest, for we could add to it existence in reality.
  3. Therefore the being than whom nothing greater can be conceived, i.e. God, necessarily has real existence.

It is not my aim here to get into the ontological argument, but only to say that to call Anselm’s argument a “proof” is misleading, and is not in the spirit of Anselm himself. The argument is not an attempt to persuade those of us who do not believe in God that such belief is the only option. It’s aim is rather different. Anselm writes in his Proslogion : “Nor do I seek to understand so that I can believe, but rather I believe so that I can understand.”

This difference is, I think, important. The argument is a way of exploring how the tenets of Anselm’s faith can be in accord with reason. This does not make them necessary, it only means that they are not unreasonable. Similarly whilst personally I do not believe in God, and whilst I think that this position is not in itself unreasonable, I am not sure, when I consider Anselm’s argument, that this position is demanded by reason. To extend this argument, I am not sure that any fundamental position on the nature of the universe is, strictly speaking, demanded by reason. It may be that reason takes place within the framework of such fundamental views of the world – within the framework of a kind of faith. It may be, that is to say, that some kind of faith (whether it is in the existence of God, in the non-existence of God, in a Lucretian picture of the universe, or what have you) is inescapable.

Leaving the talk, I looked up to the heavens, or what I could see of them through the sodium glow of a Birmingham night sky (ah! to have a remote hilltop and a telescope!) No doubt when Brother Consolmagno gazes upon the sky (from his hilltop, with his telescope, the lucky fellow), he contemplates the glory of God. For myself, when I gaze at the sky, I find myself contemplating the extraordinary richness of a universe that I can’t help suspecting – although I do not know – has come into being, somehow, under its own steam. Nevertheless, on my way home, whilst I do not share his faith, I was grateful to Consolmagno for reminding me of what is out there, and of quite how astonishing, beautiful and mysterious it all is.

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